I think I’ve mentioned this book quite a few times already, in previous blog posts. Though the majority of the book is devoted to more modern topics, the first chapter alone, covering the Edo period, is excellent. In summary, it covers the story of the Inland Sea port town of Kaminoseki (in Suô province / Yamaguchi prefecture), and the residents’ successful 30+ year fight against the construction of a nuclear power plant in their metaphorical backyard. In the wake of Fukushima, and amidst the controversies over nuclear power which resulted, not to mention growing attention to citizen protest in Japan, the US, and beyond, the book is of obvious relevance and interest. Yet, it is a fascinating book for historiographical reasons as well, as Hard Times in the Hometown is an excellent example of how to address local history.
In his treatment of Kaminoseki – a small fishing & port town in the Inland Sea – Dusinberre is careful to evade implications that Kaminoseki should be taken as a “typical” case. Yet, I think that in doing so, he does not set Kaminoseki apart as a uniquely distinctive case – the lessons from which cannot be applicable to anywhere else – but rather highlights or suggests the a-typicality of a great many other locales – or, quite possibly, of every/any other locale. In this, Dusinberre’s account mirrors some of the key arguments of Amino Yoshihiko, who, in his Rethinking Japanese History (Alan Christy trans.), argues for Japan’s medieval period that not all hyakushō were agriculturalists, and that as historians we must acknowledge and recognize the great diversity of activities in which “villagers” engaged. Much as Amino discusses individuals in what we would consider today rather “backwater” parts of Japan, managing sizable fleets of ships transporting goods from as far as Ezo, and also discusses small islands and other communities, particularly in the Inland Sea, which despite being regarded as “poor” areas due to their minimal rice production, were quite active in their production of salt, sulfur, iron, timber, or other commodities, so too does Dusinberre highlight the quite active and at times prosperous commercial warehousing & shipping activities of the people of Kaminoseki. In this respect, Dusinberre and Amino both push for an image of medieval / early modern Japan as a place not so much comprised of simply a dichotomy of major cities and backwaters, but of a much more complex and diverse collection of places.
Returning to the issue of whether Kaminoseki can be taken as “typical,” even if the individual histories of ports such as Mitarai, Tomonoura, and others which appear more prominently in my documents may differ in some important respects, I find it hard to believe that there would be no parallels at all. Dusinberre’s description of a small set of fishing villages and local trading harbors with some local significance (e.g. as a base of operations of the Murakami Suigun) which in the Edo period housed Korean and Ryukyuan embassies and sankin kōtai entourages, and became home to teahouse districts and ton’ya warehousing & shipping operations, connecting them into archipelago-wide commercial networks, rings as a story likely to have great relevance or applicability for other towns. Further examination of the particular histories of Mitarai, Tomonoura, and the like will hopefully reveal the specifics of those cases; but I think it compelling to believe that at least some of the smaller ports shared similar experiences with Kaminoseki, seeing the vast majority of the private homes along their main streets commandeered to house samurai officials whenever a foreign mission or sankin kōtai entourage came through, for example, even if this does not necessarily hold true for all such coastal villages.
The use of Kaminoseki as a focus point for the (re)telling of broader historical developments also allows for an informative different perspective on those events. The descriptions of commercial, urban, and proto-industrial growth or shifts in Edo period Japan in other scholarly works relate the story of those developments with a particular focus on their manifestations within Edo and Osaka, discussing overland and maritime networks, and developments in the provinces more generally, only in a much more general manner, in broader, rougher strokes. Even the few pages Dusinberre devotes to discussion of the Western Circuit & Inland Sea trade routes already provide more information (or at least valuably different information) about those maritime routes, and the operations of the shipping agents (ton’ya), private merchant shippers (kitamaebune), and port towns, warehouses, inns, teahouses, etc. than any of those Edo- or Osaka-focused narratives I have read in the past. So much of the Edo period’s economic / commercial and urban/popular cultural changes took place on the backs of this maritime trade, and yet its functioning, and the people and places it involved (outside of the big cities), are so overlooked.
I am very glad to have had Hard Times in the Hometown recommended (assigned) to me. I am not sure that it is a volume which would have caught my attention, or which I would ever have thought to look for, or come across, otherwise. And yet, just the Edo period chapter alone has already proved quite informative, and thought-provoking, for a number of points directly relevant to my project. Dusinberre’s introduction, as he addresses broader questions and problems of approach, defending both local history and “everyday life history,” and addressing the very gendered nature of his accounts, are also quite valuable, helping me to question and assess my own thoughts on local history approaches, and serving as an example, perhaps, which I might look back to for how to address questions of broader relevance and theoretical frameworks, and other such issues, in my own dissertation introduction, and quite possibly in the prospectus.
While I must confess I only skimmed the “modern” sections of Hard Times in the Hometown in a rather cursory manner, feeling it pertinent to press forward with other items on the reading list more explicitly relevant to my Edo period focus, Hard Times seems it would be a fascinating read, and I am very glad to now be more aware of it, for when I do find myself looking to read more deeply about developments of the Meiji through pre-war periods, and especially developments and issues of post-war Japan. Hardly the peripheral, “local history only” book it may appear to be to some, I imagine it in future providing a key, core, role in informing my understanding of modern & post-war Japan.